Navigate to Food section

Yogurt’s Long Journey

How an ancient food made in sheepskin bags by camel-riding nomads became a modern breakfast favorite

by
Paola Gavin
February 01, 2022
Lauren Craig via Flickr
Lauren Craig via Flickr
Lauren Craig via Flickr
Lauren Craig via Flickr

Yogurt is one of the oldest foods known to humans. It has been a staple in the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and India for millennia. Legend even has it that Moses ate yogurt on his way to the Promised Land.

Its exact origin is unknown, but yogurt probably dates back at least 5,000 years, when nomadic tribes in Central Asia carried their supplies of milk in sheepskin bags slung over their camels. The heat of the sun, together with the bacteria inside the bags, transformed the milk into yogurt. Yogurt was known to the ancient Greeks and the Romans. Hippocrates and Herodotus knew of its health benefits and Pliny called it an “acrid milk with a pleasant flavor.” Yogurt is also mentioned in medieval Turkic texts. In fact, the word yogurt derives from the Turkish yoğurmak, meaning “to thicken.”

But it took longer for the Western world to take to yogurt—and it required the intervention of three Jewish doctors.

Yogurt was first brought to Western Europe in the early part of the 16th century when Francis I, the king of France, was cured of an intestinal infection by a Jewish physician from Constantinople who treated the king with yogurt. Nevertheless, yogurt wasn’t well-known in Western Europe until the early 20th century. At that time a Russian-born bacteriologist of Jewish origin, Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov, a Nobel Prize winner and director of the Louis Pasteur Institute in Paris, became interested in the extraordinary longevity of Bulgarian peasants, who consumed large quantities of yogurt. As Bulgaria had more centenarians per capita than any other country in the world, Mechnikov believed that it was the live bacterial cultures in yogurt that were responsible for the centenarians’ good health and long life. In 1908 he wrote a book called The Prolongation of Life, in which he claimed that the auto-intoxication caused by toxic bacteria in the gut was the main cause of aging.

Several years after Mechnikov’s death in 1916, Isaac Carasso, a Sephardic doctor from Thessaloniki, moved to Spain, where he set up a medical practice. After noting that many of his patients suffered from digestive problems, he imported live cultures from Bulgaria and opened a small yogurt factory in Barcelona. The company was called Danone—after his little son, Daniel. Later the company expanded to France and the U.S. under the name Dannon. Since then, yogurt has become big business, not only in the U.S. and Western Europe, but around the world.

In the Western world, yogurt is primarily eaten as a breakfast dish, snack, or dessert. Supermarket shelves are filled with a vast array of artificially flavored and colored yogurt that is packed with sugar or artificial sweeteners, thickeners, stabilizers, and preservatives. This is not the case in the rest of the world, where yogurt is usually served plain and unsweetened.

Yogurt appears in all kinds of Jewish dishes, from the Eastern Mediterranean to India. Some of the most delicious Sephardic dishes from the Balkans are made with yogurt—notably eggplant or potato musaka, Bulgarian cheese banitsa (filo pastries), yaourtopita (a Greek yogurt and almond cake), and fritoles (rice flour pancakes from Corfu that are traditionally made for Hanukkah).

In Israel and the Levant, yogurt appears in numerous dips, salad dressings, and mezze. Rice, bulgur, macaroni, lentils, stuffed vegetables, and vegetable fritters are often served with a yogurt and garlic sauce. Iranian Jews like to add yogurt (mast) to a variety of soups and stews—especially abdough khiar (a chilled cucumber and yogurt soup with chopped walnuts and dried rose petals) and ash-e mast (a chickpea, lentil, and spinach soup enriched with yogurt) as well as a variety of borani—salad dishes made with yogurt and vegetables, usually spinach, beets, or eggplant—that are named after the Sassanid Queen Boran, who loved yogurt. They also like to cool down with a glass of doogh—a drink made from yogurt, mint, lemon juice, and iced soda water that is similar to the Turkish aryan. Jews from Afghanistan and India use yogurt (dahi) in numerous soups and curries. In India, meals are often accompanied by a lassi—a refreshing sweet or salted drink made with yogurt and mint, fresh fruit, or spices.

Yogurt is one of the most versatile foods. It can be eaten on its own either sweetened or salted, made into cheese, or used to make a vast array of sauces, salads, soups, stews, sweet and savory pastries, cakes, ice creams, and drinks. It is often served alongside spicy food, especially curries, because of its cooling effect.

Yogurt is very good for your health. It is rich in protein, calcium, and B vitamins, especially B-6 and B-12, so it is especially good for vegetarians. When it is made with live cultures such as Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, it is also said to boost your immune system, help to remove bad cholesterol, and balance intestinal flora—which may promote weight loss.

As a fermented product, yogurt stays fresh longer than milk. It is made by adding bacterial cultures to milk that cause the lactose in milk to become lactic acid. This is what gives yogurt its slightly tart taste and custardlike texture. All kinds of milk—cow’s, goat’s, sheep’s, buffalo’s, yak’s, camel’s, and in some countries even mare’s milk—can be used to make yogurt. If you are lactose intolerant, it can also be made with soy milk or coconut milk.

Making yogurt at home is surprisingly easy. It is much cheaper than buying commercial yogurt and you can avoid the long list of chemical preservatives, stabilizers, emulsifiers, artificial colorings and flavorings that are widely used in commercially produced yogurt. When you make your own yogurt you are also able to adjust the taste and consistency according to your personal preference. All you need is a saucepan, a thermometer, a quart of whole, low-fat, or skim milk, and six tablespoons of plain, preferably organic, yogurt made with live cultures—and perhaps some powdered milk, if you like your yogurt very creamy.

Before you begin, make sure all the equipment is very clean. The starter yogurt should be at room temperature before using. Heat the milk in a saucepan over a moderate heat until it reaches 185 degrees. Do not boil. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. When the milk has cooled to 110 degrees, whisk in the starter yogurt and four or five tablespoons of powdered milk, if desired. Pour into clean glass jars and cover loosely with lids. Wrap in a towel and place in a warm place in your kitchen and leave undisturbed for eight to 12 hours to mature. The exact time depends on the kind of milk used and how tart or firm you like your yogurt. The longer the yogurt is left to mature, the stronger the flavor. Screw on the lids and chill in the refrigerator for at least three hours before serving. Homemade yogurt will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week.

The Recipe


Braised Eggplant With Yogurt Sauce

Braised Eggplant With Yogurt Sauce

Paola Gavin is a food writer and author of four vegetarian cookbooks including Hazana: Jewish Vegetarian Cooking.